Political battles have no place in our schools’ cafeterias

kelseyBy Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

When you think of controversial policies, school lunch isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.  As a nation fighting an obesity epidemic greatly impacting youth, school lunches play an important role in getting the nation back on track.  Schools provide one, sometimes two, of the three meals kids eat each day.  These meals pack the biggest punch for kids who live in food insecure households and depend on school provided meals for nourishment.  How can we justify serving anything but wholesome, nutritious food when that is the case?

The House Appropriations Committee begs to differ.  Tomorrow they are expected to approve a 2015 spending bill for the Agriculture Department granting a waiver from nutrition standards required by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  The requirements set limits on sodium and substitute whole grain foods for those that are not.  The Senate Appropriation Committee’s bill does not include the waiver setting this up to be a drawn out fight.

Tuesday, Michelle Obama came out strongly opposing the House Republican led attempts to scale back healthier school lunch standards saying we can’t afford to play politics with nutrition standards. Prior to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, there were no standards for what could be served in schools. Hiring criteria for food service personnel and annual nutrition education training as well as grants for upgrading kitchen equipment and providing farm to school education to students are a few of the major proponents of the original bill.

The School Nutrition Association, an industry backed trade association representing cafeteria administrators, argues the new requirements are unduly expensive and lead to food being wasted by students.  Since issuing their statement in opposition of the regulations, nineteen former presidents of the School Nutrition Association have publicly opposed the group’s platform and urged Congress to keep the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act regulations intact. As Michelle Obama said, “ the last think we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health.”



Raw milk is a raw deal for consumers

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

NCL has recently signed onto a consumer group letter opposing two shocking federal bills introduced to weaken restrictions on the sale of raw milk. Raw milk – which by definition is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill dangerous bacteria – can kill you. NCL’s first leader, Florence Kelley, watched children get sick and die from raw milk. She was disconsolate that states were slow to require pasteurization – Louis Pasteur’s great discovery that heating milk kills pathogens. (Pasteur also developed the rabies vaccine.)  Heating milk to 161 degrees for 15 seconds, known as flash pasteurization, is all it takes to make milk safe.

The ignorance of those who champion the so-called benefits of raw milk is astounding. Its one thing if an adult wants to consume raw milk, but parents feed raw milk to their children putting their kids’ lives at risk.  The CDC reported in 2012 that unpasteurized products are 150 times more likely to cause food borne illnesses than pasteurized versions.

One of the federal bills would end the interstate ban on raw milk sales and the second would allow interstate transport between states where raw milk is legally sold. There are 40 bills to allow raw milk sales at the state level.

Bill Marler is a food lawyer in Seattle who has handled two-dozen cases involving illnesses from raw milk consumption in children or the elderly.  “It’s a high risk product and in most cases, I’m representing the most vulnerable in society,” Marler said.

In November, five-year-old Maddie Powell was one of nine children in her family, all younger than seven, who were sickened by E. coli from raw milk. Maddie, along with two of the other children, developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially fatal kidney disease that is known to coincide with E. coli infections. After this frightening and costly experience, Maddie’s mother said they would not return to drinking raw milk.

Why in the world would any parent knowingly subject their child to such a dangerous product to begin with? Because raw milk advocates are peddling a message that their product has health benefits superior to pasteurized milk. Nothing could be more misguided. We hope these federal bills will generate an informed discussion that will demonstrate the folly of consuming raw milk.

When it comes to GMOs how much do we really know?

kelseyBy Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

Just last week Vermont took the initiative and passed a state bill requiring GMO labeling.  While Connecticut and Maine have both passed GMO labeling acts, that legislation will only go into effect when a certain number of other states have passed similar GMO labeling requirements. Vermont’s law won’t go into effect for two years, that is if a lawsuit doesn’t knock it down first.  State legislators expect push back from major genetically engineered seed producers, like Monsanto. An extra $1.5 million legal fund was added into the legislation to help cover any costs a lawsuit may incur in court.

gmoThe recent GMO labeling buzz has got me thinking. What do we, as a nation, really know about GMOs? Turns out we know surprisingly little. Only 26 percent of consumers believe that they have eaten genetically modified foods and 60 percent believe they haven’t. For anyone who has taken the time to research this issue, they would know that it is incredibly unlikely that someone has never eaten genetically modified foods. Ten years ago in 2004, 85 percent of soybeans and 45 percent of corn grown in the U.S. were genetically modified. It is very likely that these numbers have only grown since then. What I find most disturbing is that among consumers who claimed to know the most about GM foods, 43 percent still thought that they had never eaten any GMOs.

If we as a nation are so uneducated about how much of our food is genetically modified then it is a good idea that GM foods be labeled as such. The sheer volume of GM foods in this country might disturb some consumers and lead to self-education about GMOs. Some consumers might conclude that they aren’t as detrimental as some anti-GMO activists make them out to be. Many argue these modified foods have the capacity to feed the ever-growing, ever-hungry population of this planet.

What’s more, I doubt that consumer habits will greatly change based on GMO labeling.  The people who are passionately anti-GMO likely know which foods contain GMOs already and avoid them. The people who don’t care, well they might not even notice the labels, and those that are curious might read up on genetic modification and learn more about what genetically modified really means. It is important that food producers include robust labels on their products so consumers know exactly what they are eating. For this reason, labeling food that contains GMOs is the right decision for consumers.

A push to cleanse America’s meat


By Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

A week ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a rule making clear its intent to reduce the amount of antibiotics in animal feed.  It is the first push in the Obama administration’s three-year strategy of reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics, especially for growth promotion, in livestock and poultry.  The largest motivation for this proposal is to reduce the increasing number of antibiotic-resistant infections which kill thousands of Americans each year.

FDA’s announcement included a final guidance which asks veterinary drug companies to voluntarily remove growth promoting claims from antibiotics that are most important in human medicine.  The other part of the announcement detailed the proposed rule that would require prescriptions from veterinarians for antibiotics currently sold over the counter and added to animal’s food and water.

Two of the largest veterinary drug companies, Zoetis and Elanco, have openly supported the proposed rule and either already comply or are planning to comply with the guidance recommending the removal of growth-promotion claims from labels.  However, many antibiotic activists are saying both the rule and the guidance are too weak to initiate real change.

Despite harsh criticisms from politicians and invested organizations, I feel that FDA should be applauded for its efforts.  While these actions may not be as extreme as I, or any of my fellow nutrition advocates, would have liked, it is a step in the right direction on FDA’s behalf.  Progress doesn’t happen in one day, it takes time, it is a clock with ever moving interconnected gears that never stops ticking.  This rule is now one of those gears and I am glad to see if fall into rotation, hopefully opening more doors for stricter antibiotics regulation in the future.

New report might make you think twice about spicing up your food


By Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

Insect parts, rodent hairs and salmonella.  According to a report recently released by the FDA, spices are twice as likely to be adulterated with these dangerous contaminants than other imported foods.  With 12% of spices containing rodent hairs, whole or partial insects and “other things” (i.e. rodent feces), as well as rates of salmonella being as high as 7%, Americans have reason to be wary of their spices.

The problem causing such high contamination rates are the way in which spices are farmed and stored.  Spices often come from very small farms that engage in older processes such as hand harvesting and drying the spices out the in sun.  Another problem is that spices are frequently stored in warehouses for years, increasing their chances of exposure to insects and rodents.  The study found that spices imported from Mexico and India had the highest rates of contamination.  With one quarter of the world’s spices coming from India, such findings are great cause for concern.

Eighty different types of salmonella, the most disturbing among these contaminants, were identified throughout the three year study.  While fewer than 2,000 people had salmonella related illnesses directly connected to spices between 1973 and 2010, it’s unclear how high these numbers could actually be as many people forget to report eating spices when recalling which foods may have sickened them.

The good news is that the Food Safety Modernization Act will likely clean up overseas practices for companies importing their goods to this country.  It’s a constant battle to see that these new regulations are implemented in a timely manner and comprehensively address all importation issues but the fact that change is on its way is something we, as consumers, should applaud.

A real-life example of how a government shutdown hurts food safety


By Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

Early last week the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) put out a public health alert warning American consumers that Foster Farms chicken from three of the four processing plants it had been investigating since July could be unsafe to consume.  What is a public health alert, you may be asking, and why not issue a recall if the USDA knows where this salmonella-ridden chicken is coming from?

The government shutdown was a disconcerting affair for food safety advocates like myself. FSIS, a subdivision of the USDA, maintains that their choice to issue a public health alert instead of a recall had nothing to do with the shutdown.  I think otherwise.  Although food inspectors in plants were not furloughed, many other workers that are necessary to keep processes speedy (such as workers who monitor food borne illness outbreaks at the CDC, laboratory technicians that analyze their findings, and other employees that assist with food monitoring) were sent home to twiddle their thumbs while Congress duked out their budget battle. A fully staffed USDA and CDC are more effective in detecting food borne illness and acting to prevent it than agencies that are “mostly open”.

The lack of manpower behind these operations may have led to the issuance of a public health alert instead of a recall.  Finding the origin of an outbreak and proving that a person got sick from a specific product purchased from a specific store that came from a specific plant is a difficult endeavor.  USDA cannot issue a recall if these strict, time intensive processes are not conducted. Instead of going through this lengthy process, FSIS used what information they had gathered and issued a public health alert notifying consumers to cook their chicken to 165⁰F to kill any Salmonella Heidelberg present.  In doing so they also allowed Foster Farms 72 hours to clean up their act or be shut down

When 317 people from 20 states have been confirmed ill with an abnormally high hospitalization rate of 42%, is a public health alert alone enough to protect the public?  Stores like Krogers and Costco have taken matters into their own hands by issuing a recall of products they sold and paying out of pocket for a mistake that was not of their making.   Unsurprisingly, Foster Farms did clean up their act and were not shut down, but it doesn’t change the fact that Salmonella Heidelberg contaminated chicken is still on the shelves of many grocery stores.  Foster Farms has yet to own up to their egregious mistake by recalling their chicken and the USDA isn’t holding them to it either.

A plea to USDA, stop playing chicken with our poultry

By Michell K. McIntyre, Outreach Director, Labor and Worker Rights

Last week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a scathing report on the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service’s (FSIS) pilot program for overhauling the nation’s chicken and turkey inspection regulations.  While the report focused on the food safety risks of program there are worker safety concerns as well. The poultry industry and USDA hope to roll out the regulation changes nationwide as a “modernization” to the current inspection model.

The pilot, part of the HAACP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), and USDA have been sharply criticized by food and worker safety groups, including NCL, because the proposed changes increase public health risks and the safety of plant employees. The changes would replace government trained federal inspectors with untrained private plant employees and increase the speed of inspection to 175 birds per minute – 3 birds per second.

The report finds that USDA “has not thoroughly evaluated the performance of each of the pilot projects over time [15 years] even though the agency stated it would do so when it announced the pilot projects.” GAO also accuses the program of using “snapshots of data” instead of comprehensive figures reflecting all data from the entire duration of the pilot during their analysis. FSIS’s own testing has shown that some plants in the pilot program are failing to detect foodborne illness, including salmonella.

Food and worker safety groups have not been alone in calling attention to this egregious regulation change. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have been sounding the alarm on the Hill. “Our food safety system is being ‘modernized’ at the expense of worker safety and public health,” said Rep. DeLauro, who had also previously raised concerns about the rule with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “The proposed rule has long been a problem, with 10 percent of chicken plants in a related program recently failing a round of salmonella testing.”

It’s time for the USDA to stop playing chicken with our health, halt this ill-conceived pilot program and scrap this so-called “modernization.”